How Low Can You Go?

The man at the pulpit with the mass of neatly coiffed silver hair is speaking of sin and redemption, pleading with his flock to forgive him his very human frailties. "No one is free from sin," he says. His eyes have filled with tears.

The camera lens zooms in, and the man, his voice quavering, continues in a near-whisper: "I let down my armor. I let down my dear wife of 42 years." Then, after a dramatic two-second pause, he thunders, "But I tell you--and with sodium pentothal in my veins--I have never sexually assaulted a woman in my life."

The man is Garner Ted Armstrong, a televangelist and founder of Church of God International, a Christian sect headquartered on the lush shores of Lake Palestine in Flint, Texas. In his first public admission of a colossal moral lapse six months earlier, the 66-year-old Armstrong does not offer his followers the tawdry details--the local TV stations and Inside Edition had already done that quite well. Instead, he tiptoes around the specifics, saying, "By now, you've probably heard or read the stories."

It's gut-wrenching, this routine of coming clean in public--pioneered by fellow televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. Confronted with these bare emotions and seeming remorse, the members of Armstrong's flock can do little but extend their forgiveness. There are those, of course, who remain unwilling to pardon the fallen leader. And they have been busy ever since that January 26 evening, floating copies of the videotaped sermon around the world.

Just 10 minutes northeast of Flint, in a tiny frame home in Tyler, Royce Robertson is gearing up for another day of what he calls his "investigation" of Garner Ted Armstrong, the Church of God International, and its business dealings. Robertson, 38 years old and pudgy, his thinning brown hair pulled back into a flimsy ponytail, keeps a copy of the minister's weepy confessional in a bulging nylon briefcase along with an entire arsenal against Armstrong and CGI--several thick folders of legal documents, tax and real-estate records, and magazine articles, including a particularly salacious Hustler profile that detailed the sexual escapades and financial questions leading to Armstrong's 1978 ouster from Worldwide Church of God, the sect his father, Herbert W. Armstrong, founded in 1934.

Also stuffed inside the briefcase is the most lethal weapon of all--or so Robertson thinks. It is a grainy, 43-minute videotape of his ex-wife, Suerae Robertson, massaging a naked Garner Ted Armstrong at her Tyler salon on July 15, 1995. With recordings of big-band tunes playing softly in the background, a tattooed Armstrong is seen masturbating on a massage table as Suerae, dressed in baggy surgical scrubs, lightly flicks her oiled fingers along his arms, back, buttocks, and between his thighs. About 15 minutes into the tape, Armstrong makes one of many clumsy grabs at Suerae's breasts and gropes at her crotch. She makes several weak attempts to pull away and politely protests his behavior, but not once tells him to leave. Suerae never actually touches Armstrong's genitals, but at one point she pumps massage oil from a nearby dispenser into his hands, allowing him to do the work himself. He moans and begs her to "give me some relief."

Despite its seamy content--and the ambiguous role played by his ex-wife--Royce Robertson insists the videotape has a noble purpose. It will help prove Suerae's claim that the televangelist is a "rapist."

Just 11 days before the Robertsons videotaped Armstrong with a hidden camera, Suerae alleges that the televangelist, who had been a regular client at her south Tyler massage business, violently pulled her head down during a massage session and forced her to perform oral sex on him. She claims that he bit her breasts, leaving teeth marks on her skin, and grabbed her arms so hard he left bruises.

Suerae, however, did not report the incident to Tyler police. Instead, on Royce's advice, she contacted a friend who is a private investigator. He referred them to an attorney, Royce says, who advised them to sue Armstrong--and secretly tape him the next time he visited Suerae. "We had to have solid evidence of sexual assault," Royce says. "And Suerae was told she had to let him go absolutely as far as she could possibly stand, and without provocation, so that when we go into court the evidence will hold up."

The two Tyler television stations blitzed the city last November 22 with the tale of the minister and the masseuse. Earlier that day, Houston attorney John Osborne had filed a civil lawsuit on Suerae's behalf against Armstrong and Church of God International. The case, filed in 7th state District Court in Smith County, accuses Armstrong of sexual assault and battery, and accuses the church of negligence for allowing Armstrong, who has a "well-documented history of sexual indiscretions which were well-publicized throughout the theologian [sic] community," to continue in his leadership position. The suit seeks unspecified damages, with Suerae claiming that Armstrong's actions have caused her severe emotional distress and mental anguish. Earlier this year, state District Judge Cynthia Kent issued a summary judgment in the case, dropping the church as a defendant. A disappointed Osborne--the church has by far the deeper pockets, he says--is appealing the judge's decision.

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Holly Mullen